By Melissa Allen
“Ready to talk about showing?”
That in itself is a good question. Am I ready to show? How do I prepare for a show? Is my horse ready to show? Do you get anxious at the thought of a show or excited? There are many aspects of showing to cover, and I am glad to share my perspective with you.
Preparation is key for success in the show ring, both mentally and physically. Knowing that you should be schooling at least a level higher than you are showing is also a huge factor for success. I practice the test in my head and on my horse to make sure we are confident to be riding that test. When I practice, I ride every half halt, every corner, and correct geometry to ensure I know every step of that test, not just which movement is at which letter. I memorize the test and what movement comes after the prior movement – the circle at B comes after I turn off centerline, the medium trot comes after the shoulder-in. Memorizing in this manner will help you if you get in your test and have an “Uh-oh, I forgot where I’m going” moment or there’s a distraction of some sort that breaks your concentration.
So, you’re ready to take the plunge. You need to have all your memberships in order to compete at a USDF-recognized show – or be prepared to purchase a day fee membership instead. Now the classes…you must decide what level you and your horse are ready for. Are you still struggling with a movement in a test that you’re wanting to compete at? Remember the importance of showing a level beneath what you are schooling to take that pressure off until you are more prepared. Do you have a young horse that needs mileage or possibly a new horse that you’re unsure how they will act at a show? I would suggest preparing as much as possible for all of these situations by getting your instructor to help you make the decisions needed. You might want to take your young or new horse to a couple of outings prior to signing up so you feel more prepared at the show at what to expect in typical behavior.
Show attire is another factor– read the USEF rule book on proper attire for a more in depth description. I tell my students, white breeches (with a belt if you’re not riding FEI), white gloves, stock tie with pin and short coat for lower levels, and a shadbelly for FEI. I’m more of a conservative kind of gal when it comes to show clothes. I like simple, clean, and elegant. Some riders I’ve seen at shows are completely decked out with sparkles and bling, but I find often that takes away from the picture. I saw a woman in warmup one time at a recognized show with a horse with a massive browband covered in bling. It would have been fine except she didn’t think to straighten it, so it looked like a beacon of light at a diagonal slant coming off his head!
My advice for people wanting some bling-bling is to make sure you check it properly and your riding and horse support it! You don’t want to wear a helmet or jacket that’s sparkly and then you’re sitting crooked or you have a head tilt. You’re better off going a little conservative in this situation. I would prefer my performance to shine more than my attire.
The dreaded braiding- Thankfully, most shows have professional braiders available. If you’re not comfortable with braiding, practice or hire a braider. Having someone else braid for you will take some pressure off if you need that. If you are doing it yourself, make sure to leave plenty of time so you’re not rushed. I personally like to braid each day of the show, so they look fresh and tidy. I’m not a big fan of braiding the night before for that very reason, but I’m also not a fan of braiding the night before and using a slinky on the horse to “keep” braids nice. Sometimes it’s hot and you’ve now added an extra layer on them. I’ve seen the slinky slip and end up on the horse’s head, covering their eyes. I find it the best for the horse and appearance to braid a couple hours before your ride.
Now that you’ve gotten past the clothing, braiding, past the decision of which test and have a game plan prepared for the show, we move on to the actual showing.
Let’s start with the warmup. This can often be the most daunting task of all! You should already have an idea of how you will warmup and how much time to allow before coming up centerline. One of the hardest parts is navigating the warmup, there are riders that don’t understand passing left to left, so don’t assume they do. Nowadays, everyone has headsets on and they are concentrating on what their trainer is saying and NOT where they are going or who is around them! I urge you to pay attention at all times, not only to your horse but to where you’re at and to be courteous to other riders. When I’m coaching, I always watch for where other riders are and try to steer my students away or around them so they don’t have to think about it as much. If facilities allow, I like to find the quietest place to warmup so my students and myself can concentrate more on the horse. Sometimes this isn’t possible, and you have to make do.
I was at a show at Lamplight in Chicago–a massive show venue if you didn’t already know that. My student was warming up in this huge warmup arena and it seemed like there was plenty of room. Then a western reiner rider came in, and started doing reining spins to a full on gallop, literally right next to my student. Needless to say, we couldn’t have predicted that but couldn’t blame our horse for having an absolute meltdown about it either! Ah, the joys of showing.
Now comes actually going down centerline. I have a ritual that I do while I’m going around the outside of the ring before the bell rings. I work transitions, which transitions depend on the horse I’m riding and what I’m showing, but I do transitions to make sure they are focused on me.
Then I will say in my head, “I’m ready, my horse is ready, are you ready judge? Let me show you how it’s done!” Sometimes it doesn’t go as planned, but sometimes it does! This always gets me pumped and my game face on! I want the judge to think, “Wow, this girl is serious!” When you show confidence and your horse and you are presentable, it does make a difference to the judge. You may still have mistakes, those will happen, but the positive impression is already in place.
I have several students that get anxiety about showing, some just thinking about it! Being mentally prepared is just as important as physically. Feeling that you and your horse are competent will help. Being nervous is normal, it means you care. Remember that other riders are just as nervous and that the judges do understand riders have show nerves also helps. Think about showing as being about you and your horse and no one else and you’ll instill more positivity in your ride. You may have goals of getting a certain score or qualifying for Regionals or Finals, but ultimately you are there for feedback. Does the judge think my horse is training correctly for the level I’m showing? You’re putting yourself out there, and that’s a big deal. Lord knows we spend enough money to go and sometimes it’s a chore to even get to the show. But you’re trying to make yourself and your horse better, and that’s the most important thing to remember. We work so hard on a daily basis and it’s so rewarding when you meet those personal goals.
My words of wisdom are to be prepared and give yourself leniency. Horses are horses and things happen, so don’t be afraid to cry a little, pick yourself back up, and laugh a little. After all, we are all human and we are riding large animals with minds of their own. When it all comes together it can be absolutely beautiful. I wish all of you the success you seek, in and out of the show ring!
About the Author
Melissa Allen is a USDF FEI Certified Instructor. She is a USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medalist and is based near Charlotte, NC.